Commentary: Swift action required on COVID-19 in prisons

By Javonne Rich and Joe Amon

COVID-19 is in our prisons. Delaware’s Department of Correction announced the first positive test of an incarcerated individual on April 7, 2020, and that number has ballooned to 47 inmates, as well as 27 correctional officers and three contract workers across three different facilities (as of this writing). Two incarcerated people have died from COVID-19 related complications.

In other states, prisons and jails have become hot spots for the spread of the virus, endangering people who are incarcerated, staff and the larger community. For example, an aggressive testing program revealed that 1,828 incarcerated individuals, which represents 73% of the prison population, and 109 staff members in an Ohio state prison tested positive for COVID-19.

Javonne Rich

The governor, Department of Correction, police, prosecutors, and judges must act to minimize the number of people who will be exposed to the virus in prisons and save lives. Delaware leaders can do this by reducing the number of new people flowing into the criminal legal system and releasing those who are the most vulnerable to the virus – creating more space inside facilities for those remaining to practice meaningful social distancing.

People living and working in correctional facilities are highly vulnerable to an outbreak of a contagious disease like the novel coronavirus. People who are incarcerated are housed in tight quarters, are often in poor health, and share common spaces such as bathrooms and recreation areas. Although the Department of Correction reported that the prison facilities are now under operational capacity, the prisons remain just at the design capacity or the capacity that planners or architects intended for the facility (as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics). Moreover, people remain living in cells that are double- and triple-bunked and sharing communal spaces with many more, unable to practice CDC recommendations of social distancing. Now that the virus has entered the prisons it will be nearly impossible to keep it from infecting a large subset of the population and the employees who work there.

Delaware’s leaders have taken some important measures to help minimize the impact of an outbreak in our prisons, but we need to do more before it’s too late. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Joe Amon

Gov. Carney is uniquely positioned to stop the spread of COVID-19 by decreasing our prison population. He could issue an executive order or use his reprieve power as Gov. Wolf is doing, to release or furlough anyone over the age of 60 or who is medically fragile. The governor could also empower DOC to work with the Board of Parole and the courts to expedite its existing statutory power to release those whose sentences would end in the next six months, for anyone currently being held on a technical probation violation.

Each person’s individual case and circumstances could be reviewed to ensure that the individual would not present a public safety threat and that they have a safe place to self-quarantine after release. And we must set people up for success.

Gov. Carney should mandate coordination with local service providers, such as re-entry stakeholders, to ensure that people who are released from prison have a safe place to live that is also accessible to medical facilities and services.

Failure to act is a willful choice by Delaware leaders to expose this population—the majority of which are black—to the virus. The disparate impacts of COVID-19 on the black community have been documented across the country, making this an urgent matter of racial justice as well as public health.

Many states, including all those neighboring Delaware, have already taken action to responsibly reduce their prison population. New Jersey, for example, will release as many as 1,000 people from its jails. In New York, hundreds have been released from Rikers Island. The governors of Washington and Virginia announced a plan to release early approximately 1,000 and 2,000 people, respectively. And in Oklahoma, the governor is commuting prison sentences for over 400 people in state prisons. Delaware should be the next state to make these important public health decisions.

Now is the time for bold actions to protect all people during this public health emergency. We must take swift action to minimize the number of people entering the system and release the most vulnerable individuals already in prison.

Javonne Rich, MSW, is policy advocate at ACLU of Delaware.

Joe Amon, PhD MSPH, is a clinical professor in Community Health and Prevention at Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University.